Skip to main content
Menu
Canceled Races Aren’t Stopping Endurance Athletes From Setting Wild New Records

Just before 6:30 a.m. on June 15, sleep-deprived and feet afire with blisters, Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy crossed over Vermont’s border with Massachusetts. After subsisting mostly on watery mashed Oreos and Fritos for the final miles, McConaughy finished a grueling trek along Vermont’s Long Trail in 4 days, 23 hours and 54 minutes — the fastest an athlete has been known to traverse the entire trail without a prearranged support crew. The 273-mile trail through the Green Mountains takes an average hiker between 20 and 30 days to complete and is known for relentless black flies, knee-deep muddy stretches and varying terrain from thick forest to alpine tundra. It is the oldest long-distance trail in the United States and one of the classics for attempting a fastest known time.

Fastest known times, or FKTs, are set by endurance athletes running or hiking a route, either alone or in teams. The goal is to set an unofficial record for finishing a course in the shortest possible time. In an FKT attempt, there are no bibs, no crowds and no medals. Whether deep in Appalachia or on the lip of the Grand Canyon, athletes are able to compete while maintaining physical distance from others. It just might be the perfect coronavirus pursuit. And as it turns out, the FKT scene has exploded this year.

As COVID-19 shut down state after state, many organized endurance races were canceled or rescheduled. The New York City Marathon — which would have celebrated its golden anniversary this year — and the never-before-canceled Boston Marathon are among the most well-known and highly anticipated races that have been nixed. In the ultra-trail-running world, cornerstone races Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc in Europe and Barkley Marathon in Tennessee have also been scrapped this year.

For athletes who ramped themselves into peak form for spring and summer marathons, there are a few options other than scaling back their training plans. They could do what one guy did and run a marathon on his terrace during lockdown. They could join a number of virtual races. Or, they could lace up and run through the night from the Canadian border to Massachusetts, like McConaughy did.

So how many athletes are following suit? We took a look at the data from FastestKnownTime.com, the central website for submitting FKTs, to see just how many records have fallen so far this year.

Runners submitted 3.8 times as many FKTs through June of this year as in the same period a year ago. “Not only in the numbers, but there’s been a huge uptick in the amount of work for us,” said Peter Bakwin, one of the creators of FastestKnownTime.com. There is no official governing organization for FKT routes and records, but Bakwin and his co-founders, Buzz Burrell and Jeff Schuler, act as the volunteer commissioners for approving routes and verifying times. FKT attempts had been gaining in popularity even before this year, but submissions in the past few months reflect the type of growth Bakwin and Burrell expected to see five years from now. Many of the submissions cited canceled races as the reason for the FKT attempt, they said.

Some associations that care for long-distance trails like the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail are recommending that through-hikers postpone or cancel their hikes this year to avoid spreading the virus on trails and into nearby towns.1 Those who hit the trails anyway are advised to stay local and be self-supported (so, carry what you need on and off the trail and avoid going into local towns or using trail amenities like outhouses). Because rules and recommendations have changed often in the past few months, Bakwin and Burrell are reluctant to play police. “Early on we did have to confront that question and basically we don’t want to have to verify what’s legal with changing laws — we just don’t have the capacity to do that,” Bakwin said.

But the site is also getting submissions from people who are creating their own local adventures, which means many new, interesting routes. A loop through Central Park might not seem creative on its face, but Aaron Zellheofer added an interesting new mechanic: Rather than running a single loop as fast as he could, he aimed to run as many laps of the main road as he could during the hours the park was open (6 a.m. to 1 a.m.). He ran 11 6.1-mile laps.

“We were OK with it because Central Park truly is classic, the route around the park is defined, and his timing was also very defined,” Burrell said. “And there are millions of people who live right there, so that’s one that a lot of people could contest,” Bakwin added.

Lockdowns have left many with time to plan routes and strategies for an FKT. The sport is inherently creative in that runners only have to adhere to a fairly vague seven-point list when crafting a route. That flexibility also allows nonelite runners to submit a route’s first FKT, earning them a spot on the website. Often they’ll [submit a route and] say, ‘My time can easily be beat,’” Bakwin said. “But, you know — if you can’t be fast, be first.”

Though the majority of the site’s FKTs are for routes in the United States, times can be submitted for courses in any country. And this year, Bakwin said he has seen a surge of routes in Europe, particularly from Germany, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland and the U.K. “I don’t know why, but some countries are totally into it,” Bakwin said. “I think they must have just got wind of it, and when one or two guys start talking about it over it there, I’m guessing the community is not that big.”

In preparation for 2020, Bakwin and Burrell put together a list of 10 “premier routes” (all in the United States) to encourage FKT attempts this year. The goal is to attract more elite athletes who are more likely to have a corporate sponsor who will help track and document the attempt, which the site’s organizers hoped will quell some verification controversies in previous FKTs.

FastestKnownTimes.com breaks record attempts down into three categories: supported (getting help or supplies from people you’ve arranged to meet up with along the way), self-supported (no prearranged help, but cadging food or water from people you happen across is allowed) and unsupported (you carry everything you need from start to finish.2) McConaughy had set out to attempt an unsupported FKT on the Long Trail, but he ended up accepting water along the route, turning his trek — in which he cruised at around 54 miles a day — into a self-supported FKT. Less than a month later, Brett Mastrangelo attempted to usurp McConaughy’s record but had to call it quits two days in because of a leg injury. And plenty of other athletes are making their FKT attempts on premier routes this year: Sarah Hansel just completed the first unsupported women’s attempt at Nolan’s 14 (a route covering 14 mountains in Colorado) on July 8, while Avery Collins started the trail but did not finish. Liz Anjos is in the second week of her attempt on the Appalachian Trail. Two others are publicly posting the tracker data during their FKT attempts as they challenge the current supported and self-supported records on the Colorado Trail.

Will the popularity of the FKT continue? Before the pandemic, Bakwin and Burrell couldn’t have predicted that the sport would catch fire this year, and they’re not sure what to expect after races can safely start again. “The unforeseen consequences of a global pandemic are many and surprising,” Bakwin said. “I would guess that once races start happening again, some of the traffic will taper off, but some people will have found a new thing that they will make part of their training and racing season rather than races.”

Footnotes

  1. The Long Trail remains open, but the trail club urges hikers and campers to be cautious.

  2. Though you’re allowed to refill your water from natural sources.

Anna Wiederkehr is a senior visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

Comments